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Aspartame: Friend or foe?

Artificial sweeteners. You may be familiar with that term from food packages, diet alternatives and the media?

My family, Mum in particular, is someone who gives me an awful time for consuming diet fizzy drinks. I don’t think I exaggerate when I say that ANY time I am spotted with a can of diet something or other in my hand, which may I add isn’t even a daily occurrence, I am shunned. No. Really. I am. “I can’t believe you would drink that cr*p…. I am amazed at you” and the abuse goes on. Now some of you may be sitting in shock too to think, that me, Kate the nutritionist, has been drowning my body with impurities, but let me explain to you why I don’t think it’s the worst thing in the world.

Since the beginning of time (fair, slight exaggeration) fizzy drinks have come under fire. In my opinion, this is understandable; they are cans of sugar that increase a person’s caloric intake which can, among other factors, cause a caloric surplus. This can lead to weight gain which in turn has its own health implications. Water is better etc. etc. However, for many people diet alternatives to our favourite drinks is also a big no no. The predominant reason being that they contain artificial sweeteners, or what are known as non-nutritive sweeteners.  Aspartame being the leading lady.

A quick look at Aspartame

Aspartame is made up of two amino acids; phenylalanine and aspartic acid as well as methanol. You’ll find it in many sugar-free and low-calorie products like drinks, desserts, gum and dairy products for example as a substitute to sugar for which it is 200 times sweeter than. Aspartame was approved all the way back in 1974 by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) with the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) following suit in 1994. This was after extensive research was carried out demonstrating that aspartame is safe for human consumption.

Did you know that our average daily intake (ADI) values are the amount of X we could have every day without causing any major health implications? The ADI for NNS is based off of the no-observed-adverse-effect level (NOAEL) value which is the amount of a substance one can have that is too low to cause any adverse effects. The ADI value recommended to us is set 100 times lower than the NOAEL number…

If it’s so safe, where did all these headlines we’ve seen on TV, in the paper and on the internet, warning us of the dangers, come from? Well, many trials conducted, showing a negative effect where done on rodents who were fed copious amounts of Aspartame, quantities that would never representative true levels of consumption by humans.

Animal studies have their use but translating the information obtained to humans can be a totally different story. The maximum recommended intake for Aspartame is 50mg per kg body weight. This is the equivalent to 18-19 cans of diet drinks. So, Mum, considering I have 2-4 diet drinks per week, if even, I don’t think there is much reason behind your stress? 😘

Aspartame and health implications

Scientific studies done on aspartame and human consumption demonstrate no negative health complications relating to cancer, diabetes, nervous system functioning and body composition.  “The weight of existing evidence is that aspartame is safe at current levels of consumption as a non-nutritive sweetener” (Magnuson et al., 2008).

One newer area of research looks at gut microbiota and the impact that NNS may have on it. This is an area that is not fully understood, with the majority of research looking at mice and rat studies. Thus far there is an indication that a chronic use of NNS can cause gut microbiota to change which in turn can lead to glucose intolerance. As mentioned, a lot more research into this area is needed but important to note as it is an area that we may need to pay more heed to later down the line.

Aspartame and body composition

I say Aspartame but what I mean is, diet drinks. For me, sometimes water doesn’t cut it when I fancy something sweet. But how can I have something sweet without increasing my caloric intake of any great significance? This is why diet drinks work for me. The same goes for clients who are monitoring their body composition or who are trying to lose weight even bodybuilders and bikini competitors alike. This is a solution to falling off the wagon and has been demonstrated in the research too. When looking at water versus non-nutritive sweetened (NNS)beverages over a year long period, in a weight management program, NNS demonstrated to be a far superior tool (Peters et al., 2016).  Being over-weight has far greater health complications than having a can of diet pop so if a diet Pepsi stops you from having a can of Pepsi, I don’t think there is any harm done? Same goes for non-caloric flavoured sweeteners that are now available by certain large nutrition companies, are they the solution to people eating more porridge and Greek yoghurt?

Just a thought, now back to the diet drinks malarkey…Some newspaper articles that were released not so long ago showing that those who are most overweight consume the most amount of diet drinks. One thing to query when you see headlines that are very much pushed to one side is to uncover where this information is sourced from. All studies done on NNS and weight gain in humans, have been observational to date. This is where they look at one group and draw conclusions based upon what that group have been seen to do.  Observation does not equal causation which is important to realise as it is a lot more likely that these findings are due to reverse causality. This is where those who have become overweight for other reasons (e.g. inactivity, excess calorie intake from calorie-dense foods), are now trying to lose some pounds and are doing are trying to achieve just that by now reverting to diet drinks.

Aspartame and Phenylketonuria

Aside from what has been mentioned above, there are one group of individuals who need to be wary of aspartame. Those being individuals suffering from a condition called phenylketonuria (PKU). This is where one is not able to metabolise phenylalanine (amino acid) effectively. In this instance, it is recommended that PKU sufferers treat their intake of phenylalanine from diet or low-calorie foods and drinks as any other source of the amino acid.

For these reasons, some researchers and indeed evidence-based practitioners would say sweeteners have been demonised unfairly. I would have to agree. Sure, water is best for overall health but non-nutritive sweeteners do have a place, in my opinion, in certain instances as eluded to above. I don’t agree that foods and beverages containing aspartame and NNS alike should rule our diets but enjoying them here and there, I see no problem with.

So, don’t be so quick to hate on me for my can of diet fizzy next time!

Kate 🍍

References:

Andrew G. Renwick1 * and Samuel V. Molinary (2010). Review Article Sweet-taste receptors, low-energy sweeteners, glucose absorption and insulin release. British Journal of Nutrition, 104, 1415–1420, doi:10.1017/S0007114510002540

Magnuson B.A, Burdock G.A., Doull J., Kroes R.M., Marsh G.M., Pariza M.W., Spencer P.S., Waddell W.J., Walker R. & Williams G.M., (2007). Aspartame: A Safety Evaluation Based on Current Use Levels, Regulations, and Toxicological and Epidemiological Studies. Critical Reviews in Toxicology, 37(8), (629-727), http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10408440701516184

Peters J.C., Beck J., Cardel M., Wyatt H.R., Foster G.D., Pan Z., Wojtanowski A.C., Vander Veur S.S., Herring S.J., Brill C., Hill J.O.,  (2016). The effects of water and non-nutritive sweetened beverages on weight loss and weight maintenance: A randomized clinical trial. Obesity Society 24(2), 297-304, doi: 10.1002/oby.21327.

Ginger & Garlic Chicken Couscous

Ginger and Garlic Chicken Couscous

This recipe is so easy it hurts!! A delicious, wholesome meal that will come to the rescue of any novice in the kitchen.

What do I need?

  • 4 chicken breasts
  • Olive oil – you’ll only need a drizzle for your pan
  • 3-4 cloves of garlic (I’d go for 4, but it’s whatever you’re in to 😉)
  • 1 chunk of fresh ginger (-thumb size in length)
  • 1 vegetable stock cube
  • ½ head broccoli
  • 200g couscous
  • 1 handful of mushrooms
  • 1 red pepper
  • 1 handful of kale, chopped

Equipment: 1 large frying pan, 2 chopping boards, 2 sharp knives, 1 spatula, 1 large bowl

Go on then, show me just how easy this is?

  • Chop your garlic cloves and ginger into tiny pieces and add them to the frying pan with your olive oil
  • Chop the chicken breast and add it to the pan, keep it on a low heat so that it cooks right through, stir every few minutes so that eventually it goes a light golden colour
  • While the chicken is cooking prepare the vegetables:
    • Chop the broccoli so that it is in small florets, wash
    • Remove the centre of the pepper along with the seeds, rinse and chop
    • Wash the kale and chop it into thin pieces
    • Chop off the stalks of the mushrooms, wash and chop them into small pieces
  • When the chicken has turned that light golden colour, you can add all of the chopped vegetables, mix around and allow to cook. All veg should soften slightly, chicken should go more golden brown
  • While the above is happening, add the couscous to the large boil along with the broken up vegetable stock. Add boiling water from the kettle so that the couscous is covered by ~1cm, give it a good stir and allow the couscous to absorb the water
  • Add the couscous to your frying pan and mix all together, allow 2 more minutes to cook
  • Serve and enjoy

Total prep/cook time: 30mins

Serves: 4

Nutrition Content per portion:

  • Calories: 382
  • Protein: 40g
  • Carbohydrates: 41g
  • Fat: 6g

Cost per portion: €2.16

 

 

Frances Wilson

 

Name: Frances Wilson

Age: 25

Sport: Cricket

Position: Batter

Career Length: International 6 years, total 11 years

 

What made you choose Cricket?

 

  • I loved the social side and always had my best friends through cricket, I think because it is such a long sport and meant you spent a lot of time with each other!

 

In your opinion, what has been the most challenging part of your career thus far?

 

  • My first year of international cricket was very challenging. I felt completely out of my depth playing for England and didn’t perform very well, after being dropped from the squad I wanted to quit the sport completely. I was in my first year of university so had lots of other things going on! After a few years out I started to play well again and learnt how to deal with the higher pressure you’re under playing international sport, going through the initial challenges early in my career helped me gain a bit of perspective and develop other areas of my life which in turn made me a better cricketer and more rounded person.

 

What is your greatest sporting achievement?

 

  • Becoming a World Cup winner for England in the 2017 World Cup. We were hosts of the tournament and the final was played in front of 27,000 people, it was amazing to be part of such a historical event in women’s sport. Making my comeback for England after 5 years and getting MOM in the game was also really special moment for me.

 

Who is your inspiration?

 

  • My mum is a big inspiration for me, she is very hard working and seems to enjoy everything she does. I think that’s really important and why I find her inspiring- she has an interest and an open mind to anything she finds herself doing.

 

Do you have any advice for the younger Fran?

 

  • Don’t get frustrated or bitter about losing or feeling like you’re not quite good enough- just see it as an extra challenge and something that’s making you better. (I’m far too competitive!)

 

What is your current sporting goal and how do you plan on achieving it?

 

  • I want to become one of the most valuable middle order batters in world cricket and be part of an ashes winning team this winter. I plan to keep working hard, keep perspective and enjoy any challenges which come my way.

What direction do you see your career moving towards?

 

  • I hope to continue to become an established player for England.

 

Do you have a particular mindset when approaching an important game?

 

  • I like to view nerves as my bodies way of best preparing me to play, I also like to trust all the hard work I have done in training and let instinct take over which I find takes the pressure off performance- if you have prepared the best you can that’s all you can do.

 

Apart from your sporting achievement and athletic ability, do you think there are any attributes you have acquired over the years from sport that benefit you outside of sport?

 

  • Sport has opened lots of doors for me, being in a sporting environment and meeting lots of interesting and successful people has given me the opportunity to do further education as well as get involved in coaching which in turn provided me with loads of new skills such as talking in front of big groups. I think taking part in sport also lets you work out how to learn, not just work ethic but also how to accept failures and keep moving forward.

 

What does it mean to you to be part of a team?

 

  • Being part of a team is often my motivation when I’m playing sport. The feeling that you are working for people you care about towards a cause which everyone wants to achieve pushes me forwards. I love the fact teams require all different sorts of people to be successful- in a good team, everyone has a value and a job to do which gives you a bit of a purpose.

 

What is your advice to someone who has never played sport before and is considering taking one up?

 

  • Find something which makes you feel passionate about it (whether it’s the sport itself, learning or the people you do it with). Enjoyment and success comes with something you are passionate about.

 

Has cricket opened any doors for you?

 

  • My sport gave me the opportunity to complete my MSc in Sport and Exercise Nutrition and work for the ECB as a performance nutritionist for 3 years. It has also opened doors in coaching cricket. This all happened because I met people within cricket who were willing to help me and give me an opportunity in areas outside of playing. Sport teams are like families and if you make a good impression people love to help you out!

 

*ECB = England and Wales Cricket Board